Hannah Ryder: Speech at EU-China High-level Cultural Forum

Nov 27, 2014

By Ms. Hannah Ryder, Head of Policy and Partnerships, UNDP China 

(N.B. Hannah Ryder was Head of Policy and Partnerships from August 2014- July 2016)

Yanqi Lake Kempinski Hotel, Beijing, China 

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Many thanks to the European Commission and our hosts in China for the invitation to contribute today to the discussion of the social dimension of the post-2015 goals, and what this means for China.

As many of you will be aware, UNDP and the UN Development Group (UNDG) more broadly have been facilitating a major multi-stakeholder global conversation on the future development agenda to build on MDGs. In addition, the UNDP China office has been actively working at national level to support China’s thinking and planning for the post-2015 agenda. Two national consultations events took place here – in 2012 in Yunnan, and 2013 in Beijing. In addition, last June 2014, UNDP China and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a workshop to exchange information and views on the post 2015 development agenda.

So what have we learnt from this? As a UN agency focused on poverty reduction – in China but also in other countries through China’s support, our view is of course that the post-2015 agenda should have strong social elements, like the MDGs. But there is also an opportunity to learn lessons from China on how to improve the social dimension of the post-2015 agenda. Specifically, there are three lessons.

1)      The relevance of the post-2015 goals

In many ways China has been very unique. China met several of the MDGs very quickly – especially, eradicating extreme poverty and hunger (Goal 1) and reducing infant and child mortality (Goal 4). China actually surpassed several multidimensional, socially focused targets. The proportion of rural Chinese population living under $1 per day was reduced from 46% in 1990 to around 10% by 2005, less than a 1/4 of the original level - more than a decade ahead of schedule. China also made progress on other dimensions – for example the share of underweight children in China was reduced by more than 50% between 1990 and 2005. In education (Goal 2), another key social area, China was also ahead. By 2000, China had achieved near universal primary and secondary school education (99% enrolment), approximately equal for boys and girls. There have been continued rises since. University enrolments increased more than five-fold, to mean that combined with a declining birth rate, in future, ½ of all young Chinese will be able to attend university.

But China has also faced challenges. Gender equality (Goal 3), improving maternal health (Goal 5), and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases (Goal 6) have been more difficult. Frequent natural disasters, climate change and environmental degradation also threaten progress. For China, these will be the areas to focus on in future.

But the same cannot be said for other countries. And for good reason. China has some fundamentally different socio-economic structures to other countries, for instance the number of young people (defined as age 10-24) in Sub-Saharan Africa is just under 300 million now, and projected to almost double to around 570 million by 2050. On the other hand, China also has just under 300 million youth now, but the numbers will fall to just over 180 million by 2050. There is no way that even with a balanced, multidimensional approach – as UNDP advocates, that China and African countries could have exactly the same goals. So should we aim for a huge list of socially-focused SDGs? The jury is out. Whatever happens, countries will have to prioritize – as China did – based on their own circumstances and aspirations – where they want to be, and tailor the goals. For instance, some countries may want to focus on absolute goals, and others like China on quality-related goals. All we would urge is that countries are clear about what those priorities are as soon as possible, and also think now about the data they may need to collect to inform on them. The work the UN Global Pulse has been doing with internet and other companies is an example of a useful, innovative means of doing so.

2)      Equity and inclusiveness

Another lesson learnt from China is that the MDGs did not take into account enough the fact that equal opportunities are crucial – whether in terms of growth, or social goals such as education, health, nutrition, and so on. We think the post-2015 agenda should address this, somehow. But that’s also why we are working with China now on two things. First, to examine how to make sure social protection truly covers everyone, including in the informal sector, and second, for the remaining 80-200m people in poverty (depending on what poverty line you use) “targeted” plans are developed. The next UNDP flagship publication of China’s National Human Development Report will focus on these subjects, as we believe they are the most profound challenges that could affect China’s development.

3)      Focus on how

Finally, the third lesson learnt from China is that for the MDGs there was only one goal only that focused on how to get there. And it was fairly sparse – the only quantitative element of it was the 0.7% GNI goal for ODA. While ODA remains critical, especially for the least developed countries, if you look at China, international transfers played a small part in its MDG achievements. In fact, China’s progress can be attributed to three major domestic policy choices by the government: First, a choice to focus on strong economic growth – including through expanded international trade – to bring non-aid forms of finance into China; Second, a choice to manage population growth and the rate of urbanization. Not all governments would/can do this, but it nevertheless contributed; and third, a choice to have a strongly progressive taxation system, meaning the government could gather a lot of domestic resources to re-invest. It is these sorts of policy choices, both domestic and international that will matter to whether countries achieve the goals. Of course they should have the freedom to determine which ones, but nevertheless they also need a globally conducive environment too. Imagine if China had not been able to trade, or have Chinese people migrate in order to build those trade links. More than ODA, and more than finance, will be needed to enable countries internationally once they make the right domestic policy choices.

To conclude, the social dimension of the post-2015 agenda is very important to take forward the legacy of the MDGs. But the social dimension and its achievement is also being adapted, building on lessons learnt here in China and elsewhere. And that’s very welcome.

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